Text: 1 Cor. 7:10-16
Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.
But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
Holiness is contagious. Did you know that? Holiness is contagious. According to the Bible, holiness spreads. It can spread by influence. As holy people or holy things cause others to think about holiness, they begin to think about God and trust in Him. But holiness can also spread simply by proximity. If something that is consecrated comes into close contact with something that is common, then the common thing is often made holy. We see this in the Old Testament Levitical code, but we also see it, surprisingly, in the New Testament. Yes, here in 1 Cor. 7, the apostle Paul says that one believing spouse sanctifies the whole family. “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14)
Now, this is a fascinating passage, and it raises a number of questions. We will ask and answer those questions today, but it’s important to notice the context first. Paul is in the middle of an ongoing discussion about principles of marriage, and he has now come to the topic of divorce. His basic rule is that Christians are not to get divorced in order to advance spiritual purposes. They may not divorce in order to become celibate, and they may not divorce a spouse simply because that spouse is an unbeliever. This is the pastoral issue that Paul is dealing with. But he founds his answer on the more basic fact that holiness is contagious. Since the believer will sanctify their whole family, they have no need to dissolve the marriage. They can be faithful where they are called, and they can trust that their continuing presence will be a tool that God uses to convert their spouse.
This morning we will look at what Paul has to say about divorce. But we will also look at what he has to say about the whole family. In the New Covenant, the families of believers are holy. This is why we believe that our children are members of the covenant. And, incredibly, this is also why believers are free to remain in marriages with unbelievers. They do not have to worry about being defiled, but instead should be confident that God will use them to sanctify the whole family.
As we have explained, Paul is dealing with a very peculiar situation in Corinth. He has some members who want to claim the freedom to commit acts of sexual immorality. But he also has those who want to claim a state of celibacy, even if they are married! In these verses, it appears that Paul is explaining why Christians should not get divorced from their spouse in order to pursue some sort of monastic calling. He says that if you are married, then you should remain with you spouse, even if your spouse is an unbeliever.
Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. (vs. 10-12)
The first thing we should explain is what Paul means by these phrases, “not I but the Lord” and then “I, not the Lord.” Some have mistakenly thought that Paul was distinguishing between a divinely-inspired teaching and his own personal opinion. You and I might talk that way today, however, that does not work for Paul. For starters, all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God (2 Tim. 3:16), and this includes the “red letters” of Jesus, as well as the words of Paul and the other writers. It would be a mistake to say that Paul’s teaching in verse 12 is less-inspired than his teaching in verse 10.
The explanation is actually quite simple. When he says, “not I but the Lord,” he is quoting directly from Jesus. Jesus had taught on marriage in divorce in the gospels. We see in Matthew 6:16-21, among other places, that Jesus forbids divorce except in the case of sexual immorality. Other than that, married persons should remain married. This is what Paul is referencing in 1 Cor. 7:10. He is basically quoting Jesus and reaffirming that teaching. If someone does divorce their spouse wrongfully, both Paul and Jesus say that that person should remain unmarried.
Paul then goes a step further, adding a statement that Jesus had not made, but one that is consistent with it. When Paul says, “I, not the Lord,” he means that he is now going to go beyond a mere quote from Jesus. Paul adds that if a Christian is married to an unbeliever, that they should not seek a divorce for this reason. The same rules apply to a mixed-faith marriage as would apply to a marriage between two Christians.
We should be careful here. Paul is not approving the practice of Christians marrying non-Christians. No, the teaching of “be not unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14) is still true. If a Christian is unmarried and seeking a spouse, then they should only consider other Christians as appropriate options. This comes out with more clarity later in 1 Cor. 7. In verse 39, Paul says that widows are free to remarry, but “only in the Lord.” We can apply this rule to all Christians seeking to marry. They are permitted to marry, but they must marry a fellow believer.
In this current passage, however, Paul is dealing with a situation where a person has come to faith later in life, even after they have already married. They are believers, but their spouse is not. What then? Can they seek a divorce and, like the Israelites under Ezra, put away their unclean wives and start over? No. Paul says that this does not hold true for the New Covenant, and believers should remain with their spouses, even if those spouses are unbelievers. There may be many challenges in this sort of arrangement, but it will not defile the marriage. We will say more on this in just a moment.
They Can Leave, But You Should Not
Now, while the Christian should not seek a divorce, Paul recognizes that they only have so much say over the matter. If the unbelieving spouse chooses to desert the believer, then the believer is not under any obligation to remain as if they are married. No, they are free. This is why the traditional teaching on divorce says that there are two grounds for divorce. Sexual immorality is one ground, as Jesus makes clear, but desertion is also a ground for divorce. If one spouse leaves the other, then they assume the responsibility and the fault. The spouse who has been deserted is not under bondage (1 Cor. 7:15).
So, there are two grounds for divorce: sexual immorality and desertion. But what about the case of physical abuse? Can a spouse divorce if they are being beaten? This is a question that some Christians are divided over. There are many faithful and godly Christians who take a very hard stance at this point. No, they say. The abused spouse, usually the wife, should bear this affliction and trust in the Lord. I think such a hard stance is a mistake. It comes from a desire to hold fast to the text of the Bible, but it does so by refusing to extend principles which follow by good and necessary consequence.
You see, in the case of physical abuse, the abused spouse is faced with a number of conflicting duties. Yes, they still have a relationship to their spouse, even though it is an abusive spouse. But they also have a duty towards their own life, and, in the case of children, they have a duty to protect and provide for them. When a spouse becomes abusive, it reasonably follows that the abused parties and the children will need to remove themselves from danger. In this case, the fault of the desertion lies with the abuser. The abuser is forcing the other members of the family to leave, in order to protect their lives, and as such, he is the real deserter. The abuser has forced the issue of desertion, and as such, he bears the responsibility.
Now, does this understanding of abuse as “forced desertion” open to the door to other scenarios? Is there such a thing as emotional abuse? Won’t people use this as an excuse to get divorces for all sorts of reasons? These are reasonable questions to consider, and there will always be some “gray area” where individuals will have to make wisdom calls. However, the fact that something can be abused does not mean that it is therefore illegitimate. Forced desertion applies primarily to physical abuse. I would be willing to classify a persistent refusal to protect or provide for one’s spouse and family as a form of abuse, but I would not want to make this decision quickly. There are many forms of marital failure which do not reach this status, and we should all be aware of the fact that we fall short of our duties all of the time. Divorce is a serious matter, and we should not seek to multiply the grounds for it. Nevertheless, we should pay attention to the logical implications of Biblical arguments and not place unjust burdens on our people.
So to summarize the Bible’s teaching on divorce, we can say this: the general rule is that Christians should not divorce. Whenever there is a divorce, it is the product of serious sin on someone’s part. The Bible explicitly gives two grounds for divorce: sexual immorality and desertion. In the case of immorality, the aggrieved spouse may pursue a divorce. In fact, the divorce has already been issued by the deserting spouse, and the spouse who is deserted only really formalizes what has happened. There is, finally, an implied ground within desertion. Serious abuse can force a spouse to desert in order to protect their own life and the life of their children. In such a case, the fault lies with the abuser.
One final consideration is relevant here. Some members of the early church thought they should seek divorces from their unbelieving spouses because of the danger of spiritual contamination. They worried that if they continued to be married to an unbeliever, that they might be defiled or even brought back into unbelief. This was not a totally crazy thought. The Old Testament is full of examples of covenant members being led astray by their unbelieving spouses. Solomon is perhaps the most famous, as the Scriptures say “For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David” (1 Kings 11:4). There was also the striking example of Ezra 10, where Ezra commanded the Israelites to put away the pagan wives they had taken while in captivity and to start afresh back in the promised land.
Given this background, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians is surprising. He says that believers should not divorce unbelieving spouses, and he adds that the mixed-marriages are not an occasion for defilement but instead are holy:
And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. (1 Cor. 7:13-14)
This is a profound passage, and it means that one believing spouse sanctifies the whole household. The unbelieving spouse, and the children—whether they are actively beliving or not—are holy because of the presence of the believing spouse in their midst.
The widely respected exegete Gordon Fee explains this passage well, and I want to read an extended quote from him. Profess Fee explains what Paul is saying like this:
Such a usage of “holiness” is similar to an analogy Paul will use later in his letter to the believers in Rome (Rom. 11:16): “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.” …The “consecration” of the part, in the sense of “setting it apart” for God, “sanctifies” the whole. Israel is not yet converted, but because the “firstfruits” and “root” were “holy,” that is, because Israel was originally thus “sanctified” unto God, the Israel of Paul’s day, though still in unbelief, was nonetheless “holy” in this special sense. Precisely because they belonged to God in this special sense, Paul hoped for their eventually coming to faith. That seems to be the same analogy put forth here. (NICNT, 1st Corinthians, pg 332-333)
This does not mean that the unbelieving spouse is saved. They are no more saved than the unbelieving Jews will be saved. However, they do benefit from their near proximity to the covenant, and there is a sort of contagious holiness that applies to them.
Professor Fee adds one more aspect to this, specifically addressing the children. Summarizing Paul, he says this, “If you are correct, he argues, then your children lie outside the covenant’ but as it is, through their relationship with the believer, who maintains the marriage and thus keeps intact the relationship with the children, they too can be understood to be ‘holy’ in the same way as the unbelieving spouse” (pg. 333). Professor Fee even says that this means that the children of Christians are members of the covenant, just as the children of the Jews were members of Israel.
This is a very important point. There are other passages in the New Testament which tell us that children are in the covenant. Ephesians 6:4 commands us to raise our children in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” The word for “nurture” is a word that, in Greek, means “the cultivation of the soul.” 2 Tim. 1:5 also shows Paul tracing the heritage of faith from Timothy’s grandmother, to his mother, and then to Timothy. And so when we see Paul saying that the children of believers are “holy” in 1 Cor. 7:14, we have a broader context for it.
The children of Christians are members of God’s covenant, and they should be treated as such. This is why we baptize them. This is also why we, at Christ Church Lakeland, invite them to the Lord’s Supper as well. There are other relevant considerations that we could talk about, but this is the main point. Our children already possess God’s promise, and so we should not withhold the signs and seals of that promise from them. They need to have their own personal faith, of course, and this may work its way out in various ways among different people. But since the children are objectively holy, we are to treat them as holy as we raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
The really remarkable thing that holds all of this together is that Paul is counseling the Christians at Corinth that they are allowed to keep taking care of their families because of the way that holiness and defilement work. Christ’s work of salvation does not mean that we have to leave our natural duties of marriage and family for fear of contamination. Instead it means that we can continue to take care of our marriage and family because our faith sanctifies our families. Instead of them bringing us down, we actually bless them. If they are unbelievers, our continued presence in their lives becomes one of the strongest means by which God saves them.
This tells us something about the nature of Christians living in non-Christian societies. We are not like Ezra’s Jews, trying to purify a nation-state before we can live as God’s covenant people. Our time in redemptive-history is different, and we are allowed to do kingdom work from the inside out. Live your lives in this world, but do so in faith. As you trust God, your influence will spread. And more than just your influence, there’s just something about the presence of God’s people in a society that works as a leavening agent. Just like Joseph in Egypt, we are agents of blessing for those around us.
So be faithful in your calling. You don’t have to separate from the world to remain pure. Instead, you actually help to sanctify the world as you follow God’s calling. Live at peace, as Paul says. But speak the truth in love as well. Most of all, keep the faith, and raise your families up in it. This ordinary work of marriage and family is still a basic way that God spreads His kingdom.
Let us pray.